The mist was not a quiet thing; it billowed and curled until it appeared to half-conceal darker shadows, any one of which could be an enemy. Shann remained hunkered on the sand, every sense abnormally alert, watching the fog. He was still sure he could hear sounds which marked the progress of another. What other? One of the Warlockians tracking him to spy? Or was there some prisoner like himself lost out there in the murk? Could it be Thorvald?
Now the sound had ceased. He was not even sure from what direction it had first come. Perhaps that other was listening now, as intent upon locating him. Shann ran his tongue over dry lips. The impulse to call out, to try and contact any fellow traveler here, was strong. Only hard-learned caution kept him silent. He got to his hands and knees, uncertain as to his previous direction.
Shann crept. Someone expecting a man walking erect might be suitably distracted by the arrival of a half-seen figure on all fours. He halted again to listen.
He had been right! The sound of a very muffled footfall or footfalls, carried to his ears. He was sure that the sound was louder, that the unknown was approaching. Shann stood, his hand close to his stunner. He was almost tempted to spray that beam blindly before him, hoping to hit the unseen by chance.
A shadow—something more swift than a shadow, more than one of the tricks the curling fog played on eyes—was moving with purpose and straight for him. Still, prudence restrained Shann from calling out.
The figure grew clearer. A Terran! It could be Thorvald! But remembering how they had last parted, Shann did not hurry to meet him.
That shadow-shape stretched out a long arm in a sweep as if to pull aside some of the vapor concealing them from each other. Then Shann shivered as if that fog had suddenly turned into the drive of frigid snow. For the mist did roll back so that the two of them stood in an irregular clearing in its midst.
And he did not front Thorvald.
Shann was caught up in the ice grip of an old fear, frozen by it, but somehow clinging to a hope that he did not see the unbelievable.
Those hands drawing the lash of a whip back into striking readiness ... a brutal nose broken askew, a blaster burn puckering across cheek to misshapen ear ... that, evil, gloating grin of anticipation. Flick, flick, the slight dance of the lash in a master's hand as those thick fingers tightened about the stock of the whip. In a moment it would whirl up to lay a ribbon of fire about Shann's defenceless shoulders. Then Logally would laugh and laugh, his sadistic mirth echoed by those other men who played jackals to his rogue lion.
Other men.... Shann shook his head dazedly. But he did not stand again in the Dump-size bar of the Big Strike. And he was no longer a terrorized youngster, fit meat for Logally's amusement. Only the whip rose, the lash curled out, catching Shann just as it had that time years ago, delivering a red slash of pure agony. But Logally was dead, Shann's mind screamed, fighting frantically against the evidence of his eyes, of that pain in his chest and shoulder. The Dump bully had been spaced by off-world miners, now also dead, whose claims he had tried to jump out in the Ajax system.
Logally drew back the lash, preparing to strike again. Shann faced a man five years dead who walked and fought. Or, Shann bit hard upon his lower lip, holding desperately to sane reasoning—did he indeed face anything? Logally was the ancient devil of his boyhood produced anew by the witchery of Warlock. Or had Shann himself been led to recreate both the man and the circumstances of their first meeting with fear as a weapon to pull the creator down? Dream true or false. Logally was dead; therefore, this dream was false, it had to be.
The Terran began to walk toward that grinning ogre rising out of his old nightmares. His hand was no longer on the butt of his stunner, but swung loosely at his side. He saw the coming lash, the wicked promise in those small narrowed eyes. This was Logally at the acme of his strength, when he was most to be feared, as he had continued to exist over the years in the depths of a boy-child's memory. But Logally was not alive; only in a dream could he be.
For the second time the lash bit at Shann, curling about his body, to dissolve. There was no alteration in Logally's grin, His muscular arm drew back as he aimed a third blow. Shann continued to walk forward, bringing up one hand, not to strike at that sweating, bristly jaw, but as if to push the other out of his path. And in his mind he held one thought: this was not Logally; it could not be. Ten years had passed since they had met. And for five of those years Logally had been dead. Here was Warlockian witchery, to be met by sane Terran reasoning.
Shann was alone. The mist, which had formed walls, enclosed him again. But still there was a smarting brand across his shoulder. Shann drew aside the rags of his uniform blouse to discover a welt, raw and red. And seeing that, his unbelief was shaken.
When he had believed in Logally and in Logally's weapon, the other had had reality enough to strike that blow, make the lash cut deep. But when the Terran had faced the phantom with the truth, then neither Logally nor his lash existed, Shann shivered, trying not to think what might lie before him. Visions out of nightmares which could put on substance! He had dreamed of Logally in the past, many times. And he had had other dreams, just as frightening. Must front those nightmares, all of them—? Why? To amuse his captors, or to prove contention that he was a fool to challenge the powers of such mistresses of illusion?
How did they know just what dreams to use in order to break him? Or did he himself furnish the actors and the action, projecting old terrors in this mist as a tape projected a story in three dimensions for the amusement of the viewer?
Dream true—was this progress through the mist also a dream? Dreams within dreams.... Shann put his hand to his head, uncertain, badly shaken. But that stubborn core of determination within him was still holding. Next time he would be prepared at once to face down any resurrected memory.
Walking slowly, pausing to listen for the slightest sound which might herald the coming of a new illusion, Shann tried to guess which of his nightmares might come to face him. But he was to learn that there was more than one kind of dream. Steeled against old fears, he was met by another emotion altogether.
There was a fluttering in the air, a little crooning cry which pulled at his heart. Without any conscious thought, Shann held out his hands, whistling on two notes a call which his lips appeared to remember more quickly than his mind. The shape which winged through the fog came straight to his waiting hold, tore at long-walled-away hurt with its once familiar beauty. It flew with a list; one of the delicately tinted wings was injured, had never straight. But the seraph nestled into the hollow of Shann's two palms and looked up at him with all the old liquid trust.
"Trav! Trav!" He cradled the tiny creature carefully, regarded with joy its feathered body, the curled plumes on its proudly held head, felt the silken patting of those infinitesimal claws against his protecting fingers.
Shann sat down in the sand, hardly daring to breathe. Trav—again! The wonder of this never-to-be-hoped-for return filled him with a surge of happiness almost too great to bear, which hurt in its way with as great a pain as Logally's lash; it was a pain rooted in love, not fear and hate.
Shann trembled. Trav raised one of those small claws toward the Terran's face, crooning a soft caressing cry for recognition, for protection, trying to be a part of Shann's life once more.
Trav! How could he bear to will Trav into nothingness, to bear to summon up another harsh memory which would sweep Trav away? Trav was the only thing Shann had ever known which he could love wholeheartedly, that had answered his love with a return gift of affection so much greater than the light body he now held.
"Trav!" he whispered softly. Then he made his great effort this second and far more subtle attack. With the same agony which he had known years earlier, he resolutely summoned a bitter memory, sat nursing once more a broken thing which died in pain he could not ease, aware himself of every moment of that pain. And what was worse, this time there clung that nagging little doubt. What if he had not forced the memory? Perhaps he could have taken Trav with him unhurt, alive, at least for a while.
Shann covered his face with his now empty hands. To see a nightmare flicker out after facing squarely up to its terror, that was no great task. To give up a dream which was part of a lost heaven, that cut cruelly deep. The Terran dragged himself to his feet, drained and weary, stumbling on.
Was there no end to this aimless circling through a world of green smoke? He shambled ahead, moving his feet leadenly. How long had he been here? There was no division in time, just the unchanging light which was a part of the fog through which he plodded.
Then he heard more than any shuffle of foot across sand, any crooning of a long dead seraph, the rising and falling of a voice: a human voice—not quite singing or reciting, but something between the two. Shann paused, searching his memory, a memory which seemed bruised, for the proper answer to match that sound.
But, though he recalled scene after scene out of the years, that voice did not trigger any return from his past. He turned toward its source, dully determined to get over quickly the meeting which lay behind that signal. Only, though he walked on and on, Shann did not appear any closer to the man behind the voice, nor was he able to make out separate words composing that chant, a chant broken now and then by pauses, so that the Terran grew aware of the distress of his fellow prisoner. For the impression that he sought another captive came out of nowhere and grew as he cast wider and wider in his quest.
Then he might have turned some invisible corner in the , for the chant broke out anew in stronger volume, and now he was able to distinguish words he knew.
The voice was hoarse, cracked, the words spaced with uneven catches of breath, as if they had been repeated many, many times to provide an anchor against madness, form a tie to reality. And hearing that note, Shann slowed his pace. This was out of no memory of his; he was sure of that.
That harsh croak of voice was running down, as a clock runs down for lack of winding. Shann sped on, reacting to a plea which did not lay in the words themselves.
Once more the mist curled back, provided him with an open space. A man sat on the sand, his fists buried wrist deep in the smooth grains on either side of his body, his eyes set, red-rimmed, glazed, his body rocking back and forth in time to his labored chant.
"Thorvald!" Shann skidded in the sand, went down on his knees. The manner of their last parting was forgotten as he took in the officer's condition.
The other did not stop his swaying, but his head turned with a stiff jerk, the gray eyes making a visible effort to focus on Shann. Then some of the strain smoothed out of the gaunt features and Thorvald laughed softly.
Shann stiffened but had no chance to protest that mistaken identification as the other continued: "So you made class one status, boy! I always knew you could if you'd work for it. A couple of black marks on your record, sure. But those can be rubbed out, boy, when you're willing to try. Thorvalds always have been Survey. Our father would have been proud."
Thorvald's voice flattened, his smile faded, there was a growing spark of some emotion in those gray eyes. Unexpectedly, he hurled himself forward, his hands clawing for Shann's throat. He bore the younger man down under him to the sand where Lantee found himself fighting desperately for his life against a man who could only be mad.
Shann used a trick learned on the Dumps, and his opponent doubled up with a gasp of agony to let the younger man break free. He planted a knee on the small of Thorvald's back, digging the officer into the sand, pinning down his arms in spite of the other's struggles. Regaining his own breath in gulps, Shann tried to appeal to some spark of reason in the other.
"Thorvald! This is Lantee—Lantee——" His name echoed in the mist-walled void like an unhuman wail.
"Lantee——? No, Throg! Lantee—Throg—killed my brother!"
Sand puffed out with the breath, which expelled that indictment. But Thorvald no longer fought, and Shann believed him close to collapse.
Shann relaxed his hold, rolling the other man over. Thorvald obeyed his pull limply, lying face upward, sand in his hair and eyebrows, crusting his slack lips. The younger man brushed the dirt away gently as the other opened his eyes to regard Shann with his old impersonal stare.
"You're alive," Thorvald stated bleakly. "Garth's dead. You ought to be dead too."
Shann drew back, rubbed sand from his hands, his concern dampened by the other's patent hostility. Only that angry accusation vanished in a blink of those gray eyes. Then there was a warmer recognition in Thorvald's expression.
"Lantee!" The younger man might just have come into sight. "What are you doing here?"
Shann tightened his belt. "Just about what you are." He was still aloof, giving no acknowledgment of difference in rank now. "Running around in this fog hunting the way out."
Thorvald sat up, surveying the billowing walls of the hole which contained them. Then he reached out a hand to draw fingers down Shann's forearm.
"You are real," he observed simply, and his voice was warm, welcoming.
"Don't bet on it," Shann snapped. "The unreal can be mighty real—here." His hand went up to the smarting brand on his shoulder.
Thorvald nodded. "Masters of illusion," he murmured.
"Mistresses," Shann corrected. "This place is run by a gang of pretty smart witches."
"Witches? You've seen them? Where? And what—who are they?" Thorvald pounced with a return of his old-time sharpness.
"They're females right enough, and they can make the impossible happen. I'd say that classifies them as witches. One of them tried to take me over back on the island. I set a trap and caught her; then somehow she transported me——" Swiftly he outlined the chain of events leading from his sudden awakening in the river tunnel to his present penetration of this fog-world.
Thorvald listened eagerly. When the story was finished, he rubbed his hands across his drawn face, smearing away the last of the sand. "At least you have some idea of who they are and a suggestion of how you got here. I don't remember that much about my own arrival. As far as I can remember I went to sleep on the Island and woke up here!"
Shann studied him and knew that Thorvald was telling the truth. He could remember nothing of his departure in the outrigger, the way he had fought Shann in the lagoon. The Survey officer must have been under the control of the Warlockians then. Quickly he gave the older man his version of the other's actions in the outer world and Thorvald was clearly astounded, though he did not question the facts Shann presented.
"They just took me!" Thorvald said in a husky half whisper. "But why? And why are we here? Is this a prison?"
Shann shook his head. "I think all this"—a wave of his hand encompassed the green wall, what lay beyond it, and in it—"is a test of some kind. This dream business.... A little while ago I got to thinking that I wasn't here at all, that I might be dreaming it all. Then I met you."
Thorvald understood. "Yes, but this could be a dream meeting. How can we tell?" He hesitated, almost diffidently, before he asked: "Have you met anyone else here?"
"Yes." Shann had no desire to go into that.
"People out of your past life?"
"Yes." Again he did not elaborate.
"So did I." Thorvald's expression was bleak; his encounters in the fog must have proved no more pleasant than Shann's. "That suggests that we do trigger the hallucinations ourselves. But maybe we can really lick it now."
"Well, if these phantoms are born of our memories there are about only two or three we could see together—maybe a Throg on the rampage, or that hound we left back in the mountains. And if we do sight anything like that, we'll know what it is. On the other hand, if we stick together and one of us sees something that the other can't ... well, that fact alone will explode the ghost."
There was sense in what he said. Shann aided the officer to his feet.
"I must be a better subject for their experiments than you," the older man remarked ruefully. "They took me over completely at the first."
"You were carrying that disk," Shann pointed out. "Maybe that acted as a focusing lens for whatever power they use to make us play trained animals."
"Could be!" Thorvald brought out the cloth-wrapped bone coin. "I still have it." But he made no move to pull off the bit of rag about it. "Now"—he gazed at the wall of green—"which way?"
Shann shrugged. Long ago he had lost any idea of keeping a straight course through the murk. He might have turned around any number of times since he first walked blindly into this place. Then he pointed to the packet Thorvald held.
"Why not flip that?" he asked. "Heads, we go that way—" he indicated the direction in which they were facing—"tails, we do a rightabout-face."
There was an answering grin on Thorvald's lips. "As good a guide as any we're likely to find here. We'll do it." He pulled away the twist of cloth and with a swift snap, reminiscent of that used by the Warlockian witch to empty the bowl of sticks, he tossed the disk into the air.
It spun, whirled, but—to their open-jawed amazement—it did not fall to the sand. Instead it spun until it looked like a small globe instead of a disk. And it lost its dead white for a glow of green. When that glow became dazzling for Terran eyes the miniature sun swung out, not in orbit but in straight line of flight, heading to their right.
With a muffled cry, Thorvald started in pursuit, Shann running beside him. They were in a tunnel of the fog now, and the pace set by the spinning coin was swift. The Terrans continued to follow it at the best pace they could summon, having no idea of where they were headed, but each with the hope that they finally did have a guide to lead them through this place of confusion and into a sane world where they could face on more equal terms those who had sent them there.